By Greg Clark, February 20, 1943
Harder and smarter than soldiers ever were before are the battle experts that make up Canada’s army-ready for the moment of attack
“A band of cowards thoroughly trained, can usually outfight an equal number of untrained heroes.” This was said 300 years before Columbus discovered America by a Tartar named Genghis Khan.
Today our enemies are far from cowards. Furthermore, they are madly ambitious; have been inspired by success; and polished by nearly 10 years of keenly-planned training and never-ceasing experiment in training.
The greatest miracle in history may prove to be the series of events which spared us time to become trained for the supreme battle which lies ahead.
For now we are trained. One year ago, not enough of us were trained. Two years ago, so few were trained that the best teachers among them could not be spared for the paramount task of training others. Two years ago, we could very easily have lost the war.
What Hannen Swaffer and other British writers have recently been proclaiming about the Canadian army in Britain – “that it is the best British army ever trained” – is aside from the purpose of this article. In this story, we intend to give details about the training of the Canadians in Canada and how, from nothing, military establishment has been built up that is little short of a miracle itself. There are some who may disagree: but the facts will speak for themselves.
Four short years ago, Canada’s military setup consisted of a few mildewy armories scattered across the country, half a dozen picnic-ground training camps like Niagara, a few permanent force barracks about as familiar to the public as monasteries. All of which was looked upon by the mass of Canadians with mild if any sentiments-indifference, derision, even contempt.
Today – apart entirely from our Canadian army of two corps overseas – Canada has a military training structure of approximately 100 establishments located from the Atlantic to the Pacific in which the basic training of over 200,000 men a year is handled and the special training in the different arms of officers, N.C.O.’s and men per year is brought to the point that these can proceed overseas to join their units in practically full readiness for action.
Forty of these military establishments are basic training centres not one of which was in existence before the war. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, they are spaced across the Dominion in relation to the population.
The New Army Training
Into the basic training centre goes the raw material, the ingots made from the ore of civilian recruits. From these ingots, the result of two months’ rough smelting in the elementary fires of military training, the soldiers of Canada are hammered out.
They are hammered in the other training establishments, the advanced centres known as “Special to the Arm,” the biggest of which is Ordnance at Barriefield, followed by the famous Royal Canadian Corps of Signals training centre also at Barriefield.
In a year, these advanced “Special to the Arm” centres, together with the officer schools included in them, turn out 31,458 officers and 180,000 other ranks. These are the theoretical figures. The actual net figures may be less or more. Certainly the actual figures will not be revealed for the benefit of the enemy.
A year ago it would have been hard to write about training and make a picture of what it is and why it is. Today, since practically every reader has a member of the family a product of this training, it is easy to write an article giving the bald facts and figures. For this training of a Canadian soldier is a degree and kind of training never before known or even dreamed of in the history of military science.
The private soldier of today is what the officer was in the last war. The officer of today is what the average general staff officer was in the last war. As far as training is concerned.
And as for hardness and toughness, the soldier of today is something utterly unique in military annals. Always, in the warfare of the past, there have been some hard men in every unit. Always, that little corps d’elite within the regiment or battery, were the pride and glory of the unit. They won the medals, the stripes. They led the way. They went on and died or lived, as luck would have it, to capture the kopje or the machine gun single handed. Modern war is too fast, too mechanized, too full of astonishment and sudden change to be left in the hands of any little natural born clique of heroes. All men have to be corps d’elite. All men have to be tough and hard and filled with energy and surprise. Every family that has witnessed the transformation of their soldier boys from whatever they were, good, fair or bad, into men hardened, tempered and honed, knows what I say is true.
It would be pleasant to digress here for a minute to wonder what all this training is going to mean to the life of Canada after the war. When we express anxiety about the political future, about the old parties and the C.C.F., about world socialism, about industry and how it is going to keep the pace when war ends – we forget one thing. We forget that the greatest education campaign in our history has been under way for nearly four years, involving the very cream of the manhood of the nation. For, apart from the extraordinary specialization of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian navy, the army training system of Canada is nothing more nor less than a very great educational campaign to be ranked actually with the efforts of high schools, technical schools and colleges.
Canada’s Military Teachers
What is called basic training today, of which the raw soldier gets only two months, is pretty nearly all the training a soldier got in the last war and any wars previous. Except for a little battalion drill, a few route marches and some sketchy experience on the rifle ranges, all that some hundreds of thousands of Canadian soldiers who went to France in 1915-1918 got in the way of training is what our boys get in those elementary two months of basic training at Canada’s 40 basic training camps.
Bear that astonishing fact in mind, and the picture of what Canada’s army has done and is doing today begins to take shape.
At any minute, during the past two terribly dangerous years, the whole program of training in Canada might have had to be halted and immediately scrapped.
But by heaven’s grace and the tongue of Mr. Churchill and the cunning of defeated little battalions retreating in far-flung outposts of the Empire; and latterly thanks to the incredible performance of the Russians, see what happened:
With nothing to start with but a starved and shrunken permanent force and a publicly discouraged militia, we raised a first division and sent it to Britain in December, three and a half months after the war’s start. In the old war, we piled our first division aboard ship after two months only.
To train, you have to have trainers. To learn, you have to have teachers. One teacher can handle only so many pupils, even in the humdrum of the three R’s and plenty of time ahead. That first division under General McNaughton, placing itself in physical contact with the best of the British army, proceeded to train and to learn for itself. It became the Normal School for Canada’s army. Week by week, month after month, as Dunkirk came and went and all the alarms and dangers followed, the First division stood ready at all times to defend Britain – and trained!
Contingents followed. Divisions followed. They were as well trained as possible by remote control. But on these new arrivals, the trained specialists of the First division were loosed, and strength was added to strength. Meanwhile, back in Canada, though tremendous voices were raised proclaiming that we were leaving it all to McNaughton, 10,000 buildings were going up, huge camps were being cleared out of waste land and bush, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The school was being built.
And then came a day – you can’t put your finger on the date when the teachers started coming back, the distilled essence of training personnel from the army in Britain. It could not have been done sooner, for two reasons: one, that the best trained officers and N.C.O.’s could not be spared in the risk of actual invasion of England; two, a big establishment of the best trained officers and N.C.O.’s had to be kept in Britain to handle the contingents still arriving from Canada, to put them on a par with the First division.
But the balance was eventually struck. Enough troops were in Britain, thanks to the Russian invasion, to handle both the arriving contingents and to start on the Canadian program.
Today, practically every officer commanding a Canadian training centre, whether basic or advanced, has either been to Britain with the earlier divisions or has been to Britain on a six to eight weeks’ course of training with the Canadian army in Britain.
Today, an ever increasing number of the officers and N.C.O.’s in the training centres are men back from Britain as instructors.
“The ideal,” said Brigadier E. G. Weeks, director of training on the general staff, Defence Headquarters, Ottawa, “is that every officer commanding a training centre will have recently returned from Britain either from service or from a course.
“Fortunately, there is no fixed limit to the program of training. We are probably as far from perfection today as our position today is from where we started on September 3, 1939, with practically nothing. To tell you how many establishments or training centres today would mean little because expansion is going on at all times, nothing is static and you might say, the military program in Canada is pushing at all its edges. By the time your article is published, your figures assembled today will all be wrong.” Brigadier Weeks, who started his military career as a private soldier in the old war and who was selected from all the Canadians in Britain to come home as director of training in this war has been home about 11 months, which gives you an idea of the time the training in Canada began to turn solid.
I asked him what the core, the essence of modern training for a soldier was.
“To harden and toughen men equally in body and mind, by contact with reality not theory. To prepare them for the maximum of hardship they will encounter so they can meet it intelligently. To make all men equally capable without losing their initiative and individuality.”
Here are some of the things Brigadier Weeks produced in an hour’s conversation:
Infantry units in battle kit are now expected to march at rates previously considered impracticable.
“If,” said Brigadier Weeks, “you can be where the enemy figured you could not be, you’ve got him. If, by hardening and toughening, you can hold out, physically, 20 per cent longer than the enemy figures you can hold out, by all his experience of soldiers, you have an immense advantage of him.”
In one basic training centre specially equipped to give common public school educational foundation to backward men, backwoodsmen, and others who had missed the chances of ordinary schooling, 27 per cent of the recruits did not know who Churchill, Hitler or Roosevelt were.
“Yet,” declared the brigadier, “besides our advanced army centres in infantry, reconnaissance battalions, tanks, machine guns, artillery, coast defence, anti-aircraft, signals, ordnance, and our highly specialized small training centres for battle drill and paratroop training, we have tens of thousands of men in trade school training, troops sent to factories such as General Motors and General Electric and numerous other industries; we are sending Canadians to United States schools and receiving United States soldiers in Canadian centres; vocation schools are filled with our uniformed scholars; 3,000 men are in technical schools, in maintenance and operation of every sort of vehicle and machine, in wireless, tires, switchboard operation and installation at the Bell Telephone Co, engineering, tractors, bulldozers, packing, shipping, railway operation and maintenance … those figures you have as to the product of our training do not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean the stiff jumping-jack the word soldier has meant across all the ages until today.”
Officers’ Training Centre
Brigadier Weeks likes to take time out, at lunch, to think about what this all will mean to the life of Canada after the war. To compare the training of our men in the last war to the training for this is preposterous. Military training today – together with R.C.A.F. and naval training – is to the last war’s training as is a university course to a camp meeting.
In a tour right across Canada in which I visited the outstanding training centres, a conversation with Lieut.-Col. Milton Gregg, V.C., commandant of the famous officer’s school at Brockville, stands out for the insight it expressed into this great enterprise of military training.
Candidates to this school are selected as leaders from all branches of the service. With the exception of a few specialists such as scientists and engineers individually required by the forces, all the candidates are supposed to have come through the ranks after having done four months as private soldiers.
“What is a good officer leader?” said Col. Gregg. “If you were to ask 10 different people now serving in the Canadian army, you would get 10 different answers. All I can do is to tell you some of the things that we consider most essential.
“In the army, as in civil life, there isn’t anything that can make up for a slipshod character. It can’t be patched by brilliancy, by a smooth tongue, or any other thing. You cannot fool the private soldier about the integrity of character of his officer, under whom he lives, works and fights. And it is a very good thing you can’t. The normal young officer will not be lacking in physical courage when needed, that is by no means a rare attribute, but he must have the capacity for moral courage as well. He must unflinchingly assume responsibility for the mistakes and misdemeanors of 30-odd men. If he, without looking for a scapegoat, firmly, fairly and patiently takes all the steps possible to correct the errors in his little family group, he will be off to a good start.
“It is more important that he be capable of shooting straight in all his military relationships than it is to shoot straight with his revolver – useful as that is. When our boys are old enough for Brockville, their characters have taken shape, but we can and do attempt to strengthen that character by providing all possible opportunity for the exercise of self-control and self-discipline. To face squarely a difficult problem with insistence that it be solved quickly and honestly – to force oneself by sheer will power to do what he thought he couldn’t do, I am sure, help in the strengthening of the candidate’s character.”
“Discipline is mainly tied into this question of character. The officer must be able to impose self-discipline. He cannot do that without practice in doing it, and we provide him with the opportunity for that. If he succeeds then he will inspire self-discipline in the greater number of his men and won’t have to use many of the military sanctions he has available. Nothing is more true than, what the officer is, so will his team or men become.”
Colonel Gregg’s philosophy is typical of that which directs and controls all the 41 Special to the Arm centres of Canada and from it can be gathered some idea of the goal toward which the manhood of Canada is being schooled.
“There has been a tendency in Canada,” said Col. Gregg, “to look upon the army as something quite apart from the life of the community. Consequently, when a man joined, he was inclined to feel there was a quite different set of standards, and that he might as well leave behind the things he had found useful in civil life. Take as an example that very useful thing – common sense. A candidate at first has a vague feeling that there is somewhere a set of strange governing rules, and that he must start at the very beginning, whereas all the common sense acquired through life will be his solid base. We try to encourage our lads to retain everything of value they got in their pre-military life. They need it all and it is all useful. But these things must be valuable and their own. Superficial things, such as family prestige, reputation as an athlete or scholar, valuable business or social connections, don’t count in the proving of their own worth.
“During this stress on the practical, there are injected mental problems to be immediately translated into the doing. We believe that training in mental and physical alertness military knowledge and doing should all be aimed at helping the young officer to acquire military self-reliance – the assurance that in a tight pinch he can do something with his team of men. Unless he has self-reliance he cannot let his initiative have full play. Canadians are naturally self-reliant but they are also naturally cautious and conservative and at first in the army believe that all their actions must be governed by remote control. In the fog and mix-up of battle, remote control will break down and the junior officer leader will be stranded unless he has had some practice somewhere in going full out on his own.
“We teach the candidate to do something when he is in a jam – without orders, if necessary – and to use his head to keep within the intention of his commander. We do that because we believe that if he must rely mainly on his own resources in battle, then he must have the chance to develop those resources in his training.
“He will make mistakes – do crazy things. But no mistake can be so bad as sitting down waiting for orders, or entering into a muddled weighing of issues that leads to defeatism and lack of confidence. Nothing is so bad as inaction.
“Further, for this war, the young officer must not only be willing to do, but know how to do, all the things he will ask his men to do. He should be able to do those things better than his men. In view of the great number of specialists that is a high objective. If he can’t he should not be satisfied till he can and there must always be one thing in which he is supreme within his little packet and that is his ability to understand, to lead, to inspire.”
So great had the demand for officers for training become by this winter – in our heaven-sent chance to train as perhaps no army has been trained before, in desperate urgency, yet with time – that overflow schools have had to be set up in different parts of Canada in addition to Brockville and Gordon Head for the production of some 850 additional officers for all arms of the service. The biggest of these, at Three Rivers, under command of Lieut.-Col D. S. Forbes, commandant of the famous machine-gun school there, has handled 500 candidates since November. Lieut.-Col W. W. Mathers is the chief instructor of the officer school. He was brought home from Britain much more recently, having been chief instructor of the officer training school of the Canadian army in Britain and his approach to the training problem has still sharper contact.
“In a nutshell,” said Col. Mathers, the training has for its object the production of the best possible leaders by a process of sifting such as is employed in business and industry exactly. You see, the training never ends. There are no boundaries any more. At no stage of the training does a man or an officer relax and say – ‘now I am trained.’ From the highest ranks to the lowest, as in business and industry, the pressure Is felt by everybody. That is the new, the striking aspect of military training today. If we had been thrown into action, boundaries to training would have naturally to be set and our reinforcements sent into action after a certain standard of training had been reached. Fortunately the ideal of the Canadian army has remained, as month succeeded month, without any fixed standard. So that training has become something more than training. It has become an enterprise in itself; in fact, a form of action.”
A form of action is the phrase. The battle inoculation of a Canadian soldier today consists of running, crawling and covering ground under machine-gun fire from his own comrades. In night operations, he travels miles over unknown country in rain or blizzard, with no more sham battle about it. In their tanks and mechanized equipment, they travel and make assault over country they have never seen before, with traps, defences and opposition as real as can be conceived short of destruction.
Editor’s Note: At this point in the war, training in Canada had undergone various changes. Both volunteer and conscripted soldiers were being trained together in basic training (with the hope of convincing the conscripts to switch to General Service for overseas deployment). Canada had conscription for home defence since 1940, but did not force them to serve overseas until 1944.